Histoire de Melody Nelson
(Light in the Attic)
A ruggedly unhandsome Frenchman whose voice portended sordid lechery and lung cancer, Serge Gainsbourg was an unlikely candidate to create not only a beat-digger's bonanza, but also an orchestral-funk concept LP whose admirers number several prominent figures, including Jarvis Cocker, Michael Stipe, Beck, David Holmes, Laetitia Sadier, and sci-fi author J. G. Ballard.
Histoire de Melody Nelson—originally released in 1971—was conceived by Gainsbourg as a gift for his amorata, actor/vocalist Jane Birkin (she demurely sings on "Ballade de Melody Nelson"). The story vaguely recalls Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, but here an older gentleman falls in love with a teenage-girl bicyclist whom he hits while he's driving his Rolls-Royce. Spoiler alert: The tale ends badly. But the lyrics, as heartfelt and poetic as they are, can't compete with the music for the intensity of pleasures yielded.
Gainsbourg assembled a killer band and an arranger, Jean-Claude Vannier, who invested his ideas with sly funk and portentous majesty. The album opens with the oft-sampled epic "Melody," which stealthily creeps into earshot and accrues elements and grandeur with a swooning inevitability. Serge deadpans deeply while guitars spark skyward and strings billow voluptuously. Dougie Wright's subdued, head-nodding beats practically invent triphop during the song's seven minutes.
While "Melody" stands as the disc's peak for this listener, Serge and company certainly didn't prematurely shoot their wads. "L'Hôtel Particulier" contrasts poignantly sighing strings against spare, angsty guitar and oddly tuned organ groans. "En Melody" boasts a guitar intro of startling excitement and a bass-and-drum dialogue of serpentine funkiness. One wonders how many babies got made to its Gallic phallic thrust. "Cargo Culte" reprises "Melody," but with a heavenly choir, crashing guitars, and splashing cymbals lending sublime gravitas to proceedings and giving the album a satisfying climax—and symmetry.
This is the definitive release of Histoire de Melody Nelson: extensive liner notes, an interview with Gainsbourg, French and English lyrics, detailed credits, choice illustrations, remastered audio. Accept no substitutes.